Pandemic could be the push Calgarians need to embrace winter

For many in Calgary, patio season ends with the first big snow. But this year isn’t typical, and as COVID-19 cases are on the rise some are looking for a sit-down experience outside where they feel safest.

From warming huts to ice castles, other cities have found ways to make the most of the season

Fireside beers are enjoyed outside of Annex Ale on Sunday. Some are still hoping to brave the cold and enjoy patio season year-round, but options for winterized patios are slim — prompting calls for a cultural shift. (Helen Pike/CBC)

For many in Calgary, patio season ends with the first big snow. But this year isn't typical, and as COVID-19 cases are on the rise some are looking for a sit-down experience outside where they feel safest.

Finding a year-round patio in Calgary is easier said than done. While main streets like Stephen Avenue are dotted with heat lamps and chairs set out waiting, it's uncommon to see people bundled up enjoying the outdoors unless a Chinook has rolled in.

Coun. Druh Farrell says Calgary lags behind other, much colder cities when it comes to embracing winter. 

"We need to show people that it's OK to enjoy the winter," Farrell said. "I think it's a combination of what the city can do and what private citizens can do to be creative."

In Winnipeg, there are design competitions to create warming huts, saunas and fires. In Edmonton, there are the ice castles and the IceWay › all lit up and welcoming.

Calgary's even had its own success with the Glow Winter Light Festival downtown.

The 2020 Glow Festival is a family-friendly outdoor event on Stephen Avenue Walk that shines a light on the city through thousands of light installations. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

The city was supposed to begin engagement on a winter strategy this year, but Farrell said that work was deferred due to COVID-19, like many other projects. 

The pandemic has allowed the city, and citizens to turn on a dime and implement new things to suit the new normal. And in this case, that's what Farrell hopes can happen. 

"We need a few innovators to show us that it can be done. I'm hoping that we have a few restaurants that are willing to try things out," Farrell said.  "Perhaps we can offer some sort of seed funding for people to try something new."

Farrell suggested tapping into the city's innovation dollars, or utilizing other small grants with the idea that participating businesses would share learnings from their experiments.

Braving the cold isn't just a matter of living with the elements — it's proven to be an exercise in determination for those who walk in, and ask: is your patio open. All-season enthusiast Annalise Klingbeil says it's been tough to convince staff she's willing to sit outside.

In one case, when she asked, the serving staff looked surprised, then double checked if she really wanted to sit outside in the cold. Someone who saw her group of friends sitting outside under the heaters called them troopers.

"We layered up, it was actually really quite comfortable," Klingbeil said. "We were there for more than an hour. And I just think it's worth encouraging people to go outside and embrace the winter patio."

Calgary isn't cold all winter. Because of the Chinook winds rolling through, there are often periods of patio weather dotted throughout the season. Klingbeil thinks this luxury is one of the reasons Calgarians aren't forced to lean into winter. 

Changing that culture of waiting until the next Chinook will take effort, she said. 

"I think the more people that see other people sitting outside and having a good time and not sitting there freezing, you know, laughing and enjoying themselves, I think other people will see that it's possible," Klingbeil said. 

Some establishments are looking to extend patio season. But it's an investment with unclear payoff in a city more used to fair-weather outdoor dining. 

Blankets and patio heaters are part of the winter plan at Two House brewery in Sunalta. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Two House Brewing Company owner Jennifer Twyman has plans up her sleeve, like events and campaigns encouraging people to sit outside, to help people get comfortable with being cold. 

 When the weather started turning the first thing Twyman did was run out and grab a bunch of blankets for folks to purchase by donation.

She's not comfortable eating inside of a restaurant right now, so she doesn't expect her patrons to come indoors to drink beer. 

"I think Calgarians can embrace this. You know, they'll learn to embrace this," Twyman said. "In the spring with the rain storms, this place filled up and people were getting wet and they were just fine. They were liking it. So. I just think it's a whole new world."

A warming shelter made of snow shovels, designed by a Calgary team, stands outside of the Forks in Winnipeg. (Jonathan Ventura/CBC)

Twyman said when the winter weather settles in, she expects people will be used to the cold weather. Everything is relative, so -2 C in October might feel colder than the same forecast in February. 

"Since it's gotten cold, yeah, we haven't had a ton of people sitting outside yet," Twyman said.  "You know, we also need to acclimatize."

Annex Ale Project co-owner Andrew Bullied said he's coming up against supply chain issues — tents and fire pits are selling out as people scramble to equip their homes for a toasty, safe, winter. 

He's still evaluating whether or not a heated permanent patio is worth it, and if there's time to get it done this winter. 

"To fully winterize the patio, it will be $10,000 to $15,000, especially if you want to enclose the patio," Bullied said. "After - 10 C, I'm not quite sure that people are going to want to sit outside no matter how enclosed the patio is or how heated."

For now, when there are special events on the horizon, he said he will be renting fire pits. 


Helen Pike


Helen Pike is CBC Calgary's mountain bureau reporter, based in Canmore. Her reporting focus is on stories about life, wildlife and climate in the Rockies. She joined CBC Calgary as a multimedia reporter in 2018 after spending four years working as a print journalist with a focus on municipal issues. You can find her on Twitter @helenipike.


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